AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Less than 24 hour after South African comic Trevor Noah was named as the man taking over "The Daily Show" from Jon Stewart, he's already in a load of trouble. The problem - a series of tweets, some from years ago, in which the 31-year-old comic says things about Jewish people and overweight women that many have found offensive. A warning to our listeners - we will hear a description of some of those jokes. Here to talk about the backlash and what it may mean for "The Daily Show" is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, welcome back to the program.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.
CORNISH: So just as some "Daily Show" fans were celebrating this choice, these tweets surface. Can you describe them?
DEGGANS: It's tough to describe the edgiest tweets verbatim on the radio, but he did joke about how fat women love the weekend because other people get drunk and think they're sexy. And he posted another joke centered on the notion that Jewish women don't like to perform oral sex. Now, these are both old tropes for comics, but websites and Twitter users have been circulating about a dozen tweets like this reaching back to 2009, with some critics, like stand-up comic Roseanne Barr, saying this shows that Noah has negative views about women and Jewish people. But Noah's been on Twitter since 2009. He's posted 8,900 tweets from his current page, and he was a well-known person on South African TV back then. So you got to wonder what he was thinking when he did this.
CORNISH: And as you mention him being South African, he's the biracial child of a South African mother and white Swiss father. He jokes about race in his stand-up routine. Do these jokes have any different weight when they come from him?
DEGGANS: Well, they might. Noah has also said his mother's half Jewish, and Jon Stewart often jokes about his own Jewish heritage on "The Daily Show." And it seems in popular culture we've accepted this idea that people who are part of a minority group can make fun of that group in ways that outsiders can't. But it also doesn't seem that Trevor Noah has publicly identified much with being Jewish, and there's nothing in these controversial tweets that indicates he's making fun of himself or sees himself as part of Jewish culture. Now, I do worry about a small number of tweets being taken out of context, but that's often how social media works. And you have to be mindful of how tweets like this will look to people who don't know you or your comedy.
CORNISH: So, Eric, why wouldn't Trevor Noah or Comedy Central delete these tweets in the first place, right? And in the meantime, have folks at Comedy Central or Trevor Noah responded to this controversy?
DEGGANS: (Laughter) Well, Audie, after years of covering television and show business, I can be a little bit cynical. So I wonder if the channel realized that having people discover they tried to delete the tweets might be worse than just leaving them alone and hoping nobody stumbles on them. Now, Comedy Central did release a statement earlier today saying, quote, "Like many comedians, Trevor Noah pushes boundaries. He is provocative and spares no one, himself included. To judge him or his comedy based on a handful of jokes is unfair. Trevor is a talented comedian with a bright future at Comedy Central," end quote.
CORNISH: Eric, what's your takeaway from this?
DEGGANS: Well, assuming more controversial stuff doesn't come out, I do still think Noah and Jon Stewart will have to address this more directly just to assure the show's fans that the new host isn't a sexist anti-Semite and to smooth that transition. But it's also an important lesson for Noah and Comedy Central about the tug-of-war in comedy between comics who want to push the envelope with jokes and people who quite rightly note that humor can make prejudice and sexism more acceptable. And on "The Daily Show," Noah's going to speaking to a much larger and broader audience. He needs to learn very quickly how to navigate this stuff better.
CORNISH: That's NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, thank you.
DEGGANS: Thank you.
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